People often ask me, “Who is your donor?” My response to that is, “My donor is a true blessing.” When we think about organ donation, we often want personal details about the people, but the most important thing there is to know about an organ donor is that they made the decision to be an organ donor. On the hardest day of their life, they chose to give a stranger the greatest gift one could ever want, and that is the meaning of a true blessing. I am forever grateful to my donor and their family for their gift of life that has allowed me to have this opportunity to simply live better than I ever thought was possible.
As we begin the New Year, it is common for us to sit down and reevaluate our life. We look at what we’ve been through, what we’re going through and where we want to be. We set goals and expectations that we hope to achieve in the coming year. However, we often forget about the little things that we should appreciate and strive to have in our life, things as small as to simply live.
I urge you to cherish the small things, appreciate the life you have and make a commitment to give the gift of life.
As a Congenital Heart Disease survivor, I learned to appreciate the gift of life at a very young age. At 4-weeks-old, my parents learned about my congenital heart defect in a small town emergency room, where I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I was quickly rushed to Buffalo Children’s Hospital where I underwent my first major heart surgery. Over the next 18 years, I had three open-heart surgeries. By the time I graduated college, I knew how it felt to have an ischemic stroke affect me cognitively, and by the time I completed graduate school, I knew there was nothing that life could throw at me that would slow me down.
As an ambitious 23-year-old girl from Buffalo, NY, I packed up everything I could fit in my car and took my Master of Public Health degree to a city at the forefront of public health: San Francisco, California. I’d be lying if I said the sunshine and palm trees didn’t have an influence on my difficult decision to leave behind such good food and even better people, but I was determined to have that California dream. After a 41-hour drive, and only one speeding ticket later, I arrived to The Golden State on November 1, 2013. For the first time in my life, I felt I had it all. I had the degree, the job, the apartment, the sunshine, and I felt magnificent. Unfortunately, that all changed one year later when I started to experience life-threatening arrhythmias and symptoms of heart failure.
I was referred to the Stanford Health Care Heart Transplant Program on October 1, 2014. Despite being a lifelong advocate for organ donation, and witness to the miracle it brought to many people close to me, heart transplantation was something that I never thought I would personally experience. Due to the limited resources of organs and the complexity of transplantation, it remains end-stage treatment. I spent one year exhausting all my treatment options before I was listed for transplant in Northern California at Stanford Health Care on December 4, 2015. While I waited, I was the ideal transplant candidate. I took the initiative to thoroughly research transplant center programs throughout the United States. I used the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network public database to further understand the statistics regarding whom I was waiting with, and ultimately competing against for an organ to live. I educated myself on the allocation system of organs and made the strategic decision to become dual-listed in a neighboring service area. I was listed in Southern California at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on January 20, 2016. This dual listing allowed me to be listed at two of the most competitive heart transplant centers in the world; two centers performing the most heart transplants annually. There was nothing more I could do, but wait for my match and wonder where it would come from.
It was a hopeless feeling to sit back and watch everything I earned slowly taken away by no fault of my own. I left a job I loved, an apartment I made my home, missed major life events with the people I love the most, and gave up so much of my independence while I was forced to rely on others to do the simplest things. I knew I would only gain back my quality of life with the generosity and love of a stranger’s decision to give me the gift of life.
On Sunday, September 24, 2017 at 2:00 a.m., I received “the call” that a possible match had been found for me. I always thought I would fall to the ground in tears of joy when I received this call, but after 660 days of waiting, I was calm and prepared. I responded, “I can be there in one hour.” My mother and I gathered our “hospital bags” that had been packed for all of those 660 days and we began the ride of a lifetime to Stanford Hospital. The surgery began the following day around 6:45 a.m. and by that afternoon, my mother was listening to a strong healthy heart beating in my chest for the first time in my life.
The road to recovery from transplantation has not been easy, but I have quickly learned that it is all worth it. Only 10 days after being transplanted, I felt better than I did before surgery. I brushed my teeth without my heart rate racing, I showered without shortness of breath and I finally felt excited for the future.
I witnessed firsthand that 3 years as a pre-heart transplant patient and 661 days on the UNOS Heart Transplant Waiting List can easily make you lose yourself when you're forced to give up the things you love. My donor is giving me back everything I lost. Every day I get back a little piece of independence and happiness that I had to give up. Every day I become closer to having the life I want, and until I reach that day, I enjoy all the small things that can be so easily taken for granted when you're healthy, such as to simply live.
This New Year, I challenge you to not only reevaluate your life, but also the ways you can change others’ lives. I urge you to cherish the small things, appreciate the life you have and make a commitment to give the gift of life. From personal experience, I can promise you that you’ll always be appreciated and loved for your decision to donate life.
- Alice Georgitso, originally from Buffalo, NY, lives in California and received a heart transplant on September 25, 2017. Thank you, Alice, for sharing your story with us!